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Eight movies we loved at Sydney Film Festival

Pain and Glory
Photograph: Supplied Pain and Glory

It’s all over for another year and the 2019 SFF did not disappoint, bringing a raft of great movies to big screens across town, as well as an impressive list of special guests. The choice of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite to win the Sydney Film Prize was a bit of an anti-climax given it previously won the Palme D’Or in Cannes, but what are you going to do? The film’s a masterpiece. With that in mind, here are our quick reviews of eight lesser-heralded movies that blew us away at the festival this year – and how you can get to see them yourself.

1. Booksmart ★★★★

Many reviews are pegging Booksmart as “Imagine Superbad, but with women”. It does star Jonah Hill’s sister, after all, but while mostly accurate the description is also kinda lazy. What they fail to describe is what the particularities of female friendship add to the gross-out high school party trope, which is heaps. In Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, lead characters Amy and Molly tread the usual path of drugs, sex, queerness and pre-graduation hedonism, but their overarching intimacy as platonic partners is so raw and real it had us tearing up through the giggles. Sure, there’s a “representations of female adolescence in film” PhD candidate frothing in the wings right now, but Booksmart is, above all, a lot of fun. Claire Finneran

Booksmart opens in cinemas on Jul 11.

2. Hail Satan? ★★★★

“One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures” – sounds like Christianity for Dummies, right? Spoiler alert: it’s one of the stunningly good tenets of the Satanic Temple, a religious group that has been gleefully taunting America with progressive activism since 2013. Hail Satan?, a documentary by American filmmaker (and recent Satanic convert) Penny Lane, peels back the black velvet curtain to show the church in action for a wickedly fun 90 minutes. Led by spokesperson Lucien Greaves, we watch as the Satanic Temple boldly and hilariously challenges the dominance of Christianity in American society. They’re turning up to anti-abortion rallies dressed as fetish foetuses; they’re plugging their Iggy Pop-modelled Baphomet statue on government grounds; and they’re collecting sanitary napkins for charity (Menstruatin’ for Satan), and highlighting the worrisome intertwining of church and state as they go. Entertainment aside, this is quite a learning experience – and nothing gets attention quite like Satan does. Claire Finneran

Hail Satan? opens in cinemas on Jul 11.

3. High Life ★★★★★

Viewers queuing up to see the brooding RPattz may leave gasping for air in the new film from gutsy French director Claire Denis (Beau Travail). Drifting in a decrepit spaceship, Monte (Pattinson) and his young charge seem alone, but flashbacks reveal them to be survivors of an ill-fated mission in which death-row inmates volunteer to investigate a real-life theory concerning black holes. Meanwhile, the “shaman of semen” Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) withdraws sperm from male inmates to see if conception is possible in the irradiated outskirts of space. The crew soothes their frustrations in the Fuckbox, an oozing chamber of mechanical dildos where Binoche writhes in one memorable sequence. Sparse in dialogue, High Life demands unrelenting restraint from Pattinson, whose Monte is fascinating. High Life is less concerned with the perpetual void of space than with its impact on the human body, composed of “star stuff”, but also spit, breast milk and blood. Courtney Duckworth

High Life opens in cinemas later in 2019.

4. In Fabric ★★★★★

Film lovers who thrive on decoding movie metaphors will adore Peter Strickland’s dark horror-comedy which portrays consumerism as a devastating and literally vicious cycle. The exact setting for In Fabric remains as mysterious as its villain: a cursed red dress that seeks the demise of all who wear it. The frock violently takes hold of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a lonely middle-aged banker who purchases it from a posse of extremely unnerving retail workers at a department store fire sale. Once the dangerous clothing item reaches the op shop shelves, it starts to torment another couple in a freshly disturbing yet comical storyline. As more characters suffer at the hands of the dress, the department store’s otherworldly nature is slowly revealed. With mannequin masturbation, washing machine repairman hypnotism and shopping frenzies in increasingly manic waves until the incendiary climax, In Fabric proves that European horror referencing the ’70s and ’80s never goes out of style. Olivia Gee

In Fabric also screens at Melbourne International Film Festival in August. 

Monos. Photograph: Supplied

5. Monos ★★★★

Two lingering sounds stay with you after watching Monos: the ominous flute overture that seems to spell chaos and destruction, and the bird-like hand-to-mouth kissing sound that the Monos (monkeys) use to communicate with each other. Director Alejandro Landes won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at Sundance for his visually stunning thriller that tracks a group of child soldiers and their hostage from remote mountaintop to lush jungle. It’s somewhere between Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now, with no heroes and every character forced to make devastating choices. In this unspecified South American landscape, Landes communicates hope for survival and fear of retribution in one unrelenting package. What’s surprising is how well the filmmakers balance the fear we develop with love and understanding for everyone’s murderous actions. Emma Joyce

Monos also screens at Melbourne International Film Festival in August.

6. Pain and Glory ★★★★

Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st feature film finds Antonio Banderas in the role of Salvador Mallo, an ageing filmmaker in a rut. When Mallo receives an invitation to take part in a Q&A at an upcoming screening of one of his early movies, he sets about reconnecting with his leading actor, a man he has not spoken to in over 30 years. What ensues is a patchwork of vivid memories and chance encounters, one that often plays more like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole. But doesn’t real life sometimes feel that way, too? As we watch Mallo reconcile with himself – his childhood, his sexuality, his career – we get the feeling that Almódovar may well be in the process of doing the same. Fans of the prolific director’s work will no doubt appreciate the nostalgic, self-referential nature of Pain and Glory. It may not be as unapologetically subversive or kitschy as some of his biggest hits, but it’s no less provocative. Banderas turns in a masterful, nuanced performance that balances wryness and melancholy to great effect, and leaves us wondering whether our past is ever truly behind us. Matty Hirsch

Pain and Glory opens in cinemas later in 2019.

7. Amazing Grace ★★★★★

It’s a rare treat to watch a straight-up concert film without the distraction of talking heads. It’s an even rarer treat when the performer given so much space to musically soar is Aretha Franklin. Filmed over two nights in 1972, Amazing Grace plonks you straight in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where her best-selling album of the same name was recorded. Guided only by the sermon-like commentary of Reverend James Cleveland, the film plows through songs and celestial celebration without taking a breath. It is utterly captivating. Franklin, of course, is gobsmacking to watch. Her pious focus and soul-hitting voice had the State Theatre audience stunned and infectiously bopping in equal measure. When the camera drifts away from Franklin we’re treated to the robust machinations of the backing choir, an openly jubilant and weeping audience, an awkwardly clapping Mick Jagger, and the gorgeous velvet jewel tones only 16mm camera footage can provide. Amazing Grace is a rapturous cinema experience. Claire Finneran

Amazing Grace opens in cinemas on Aug 29.

8. Dirty God ★★★★★

At the screening of Dirty God, Dutch director Sacha Polak told the audience about a woman with severe scarring who caught her eye at a music festival. She set out on a mission to interview survivors of acid attacks in London, attacks which number more than 400 every year. Dirty God is the fictional outcome of hundreds of interviews, which tells the story of Jade (Vicky Knight) – a young mother in London who is recovering from a vengeful attack by her former partner. We never see the attack. The film is about the way people treat Jade, and how she sees herself. Knight, who makes her acting debut in this feature, is mesmerising. She received her own burns from a childhood fire and was humiliated on a British TV show Too Ugly for Love. In Dirty God, Knight brings all the vulnerability and strength of her own experience to Jade’s quest for acceptance and for love. For all the hatred and humiliation Jade is subjected to, the story is ultimately about kindness and it’s those moments that break your heart the most. Emma Joyce

Dirty God opens in cinemas later in 2019.

Four Australian movies that shook us to the core at Sydney Film Festival.

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